EXCLUSIVE: 'Vikings' Creator Talks Shocking Midseason Death, 'Collaborative' Relationship With Series' Star
By Jennifer Drysdale
Photo: History Channel
WARNING: Spoiler Alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Wednesday's episode of Vikings.
After spending the last few episodes plotting his own death, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) finally said his last words on Wednesday's episode of Vikings.
The second half of season four saw a version of Ragnar viewers hadn't seen before: he was broken, battered, and truly ready to die. And while the Viking King didn't escape death in "All His Angels," he did have one last trick up his sleeve. After convincing King Ecbert (Linus Roache) to allow his son, Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), safe passage back to Kattegat to instruct his brothers to seek revenge on King Aelle (Ivan Kaye) after his death, Ragnar struck a secret deal with his youngest son to target Ecbert instead.
Ivar was able to return home to deliver his father's message, while Ragnar, as Aelle's prisoner, was tortured in a cage before being dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes, the way he met his fate as described in the history books.
ET caught up with the show's creator Michael Hirst on Thursday, who reflected on the poignant episode, his incredibly "collaborative" relationship with Fimmel, and what Ragnar's death means for the series going forward.
ET: What was significant about the way we said goodbye to Ragnar?
Michael Hirst: It's taken quite a long time to get there, I think. It's now well known that when I first read the bible and imagined the show, I thought Ragnar might die at the end of the first season. Then of course, you know, Travis came aboard, and the show started to develop and get deeper, so it became obvious that Ragnar wasn't going to die anytime soon and that we would want to invest in him and follow him on his journey. He was such a charismatic and fascinating character that you know, I was invested in him just as much as the fans were invested in him. So he was great, but I knew that one day he would have to die. Partly because this was always a show about Ragnar and his sons. It was a saga. It wasn't going to end with Ragnar's death, so I knew it was going to come. So you know, we got to a place where it seemed inevitable.
It became organic when it was necessary for him to die, and when the character wanted to die. So that became a big emotional issue for me and for Travis, and actually for Linus Roache too, who plays Ecbert. Because we were all involved in these last scenes, and they were very difficult scenes to write. They were very emotional.
"I wasn't going to deviate from [history]; the show is as true to history as I can make it, so I knew that was going to be the end game. It was just how we approached it, how Ragnar approached it, psychologically, and in terms of his religious beliefs, and particularly what Ecbert felt about Ragnar's death, and how he approached it. So in fact, it was the last two episodes… they were one episode, really, and they were preparing all these great characters for the death of our central character. And it was an extraordinary time, at the studio, when we started to talk about these episodes, when Travis and I, and Linus, got together and actually started to think about how we would deal with Ragnar's death, because we could no longer avoid it. It was happening, and it was fantastic. Everyone had their input. Everyone had something to say about Ragnar's death.
During our conversation with Alyssa Sutherland (who plays Aslaug on the show) a few weeks ago, she mentioned that the season four scene where Ragnar apologizes to Aslaug was actually Fimmel's idea. How much input did Fimmel really have on scenes throughout the series?
Travis had a big influence in the show, and an increasing influence as we got deeper into it. Ragnar is not my invention, it's me and Travis together working on this character and developing this character, and Travis is a very clever, thoughtful, intelligent actor and I listen to him a lot about what he wanted to do. I didn't always agree, but I always listened because his suggestions were often very illuminating, and so we worked together for years, really. We had long, long sessions. We would play pool together, we would have a drink together. We would have long meetings together in which we discussed every line of his dialogue. And Travis is one of the few actors who wanted usually to cut his dialogue. He wanted to cut his final speech, when he was dying, and we fought about that. [Throughout the series] I let him suggest things that he wanted to say, and it was very moving. I think those scenes with Aslaug and Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) are some of the best things that we shot, and they're very, very emotional, and for me, these characters are human beings who I identify with, and feel very deeply for. So anything that makes their contacts more emotional is something I want to run with.
Was this character input something specific to Fimmel?
I talk to all the actors, actually. I go out of my way. I like the collaborative side of making TV, and I'll always talk to the actors, but of course, the ones who have been in the show the longest have more of a claim on my time. With Travis, it was different because he was a lead, and from the start, he was a very thoughtful kind of deep guy. So I wanted always to be attentive to his interests and sometimes we fought, but normally we would agree, and we did amazing things together.
Just to give you an example, which very few people actually know, is the last episode of season two, Travis came to me, after I'd written the script, and he had read the script, and he said, "I think I shouldn't say anything in this episode except the Lord's prayer." And I said, "That's interesting. Okay. I'll go away and think about that." And I looked through all the things that he had said, and I thought, "I can give those speeches, I can give those lines to some other actors." And I wondered if anyone would notice that Ragnar's not saying anything in the scene. So I went back to Travis and I said, "Okay, I'll do it. It's such an exciting thought, but you must never tell anyone that that's what we've decided, and we'll just see if anyone notices." And the fact is that Travis' presence was so incredible that if he was in a scene, you kind of thought that he had said something. So he didn't actually need to say anything, and that episode, episode 10 of season two is just amazing, because he really doesn't say anything except the lord's prayer. And you would never know, unless I've told you.
What was the decision behind placing Ragnar's death in the middle of season four, instead of a more typical end-of-season death?
I think we've always tried to be different. Vikings as a show is about real people and real events, and in real life, people get old and they die and they change, and children grow up, and there are some shows that are fancy shows in which nobody ever changes. And I didn't want that. I want it to be as real as possible. But the main thing, I think, is that this really isn't a show just about Ragnar Lothbrok. It never was a show just about Ragnar Lothbrok. I wanted it to happen midseason so the sons could be up and running already. We have the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, and I want the audience now to transfer a lot of their interest into the sons. It wasn't something I had just thought of. I always wanted to play it like that.
I think that what you'll find is that particularly Ivar the boneless becomes such a huge character in the show, and a lot of the interest and fascination that we felt for Ragnar is easily transferred into interest and fascination for Ivar.
Speaking of his sons, one of Ragnar's last lines is "How the little piggies will grunt when they hear how the old boar suffered." What does that mean for the show going forward?
He's talking about how his sons will respond to his death, and one of the important things about that is that that is what the real Ragnar, the historical Ragnar actually said, or that's what he is recorded as having said. And what it means is that he sets in train a revenge which the sons have got to carry out. They have to avenge his death. Even though Ragnar himself has lost his faith, he knows that his sons, and his people, haven't lost their faith, and his death will have to be avenged. Ragnar is clever. He's setting in train the revenge for his own death.
Will we be seeing Ragnar in the show at all after his death?
We won't see him in the same way that we've seen Athelstan (George Blagden) come back, I think, you know, as a ghost, as a memory, as a present. We will have flashes of Ragnar. Ragnar is so huge, it's such a huge presence in the show, that he can't just disappear. So he lives on in lots of little ways and big ways, and in people's memories and in their dreams and in their thoughts and in their lives, that he's impacting on the lives of all his sons, so he will never die, essentially. He's always going to be present.
Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on History Channel.